Monday, April 05, 2010

Hating Beloved - the Post-Game Summary

by Scott Bradfield

In 2001, somebody called me on the phone six months before I was scheduled to speak in Berlin and asked what the title of my lecture would be. They were paying good money, so I felt I should try something new - a “personal essay.”

My desk at UCONN was covered with these terrible How to Teach Beloved textbooks I’d been picking up at used bookstores because, frankly, I had no idea how to teach Beloved. And I was getting frustrated. So I said, “I’d like to write about why I hate Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” The Berliners printed up lots of flyers, ran ads in newspapers, and six months later, I had cornered myself into writing this essay.

After the lecture, a young blondish Paul Verhoeven-looking Austrian man stood up and said, sounding a lot like Governor Arnold, that he was disappointed I hadn’t really blasted Toni Morrison, and that I should have kept my promise. Then he walked out.

I turned the lecture into a prose-essay the next year, when I taught a graduate seminar at UCONN entitled, “Literature and Crap: What We Like and What We’re Supposed To.” For two years, I sent the essay around to dozens of journals and periodicals, all of whom rejected it on one of two grounds:

1) they “didn’t get it”
2) they agreed that they didn’t like the book either, and agreed with most of the things I said, but they ”just couldn’t” publish it

The essay was eventually accepted by a young(er than me) critic and short story writer named Paul Maliszewski, who was guest-editing The Denver Quarterly. Paul accepted the essay, and subjected it to his version of close-editing - which was excruciating, never-ending, and, more often than not, really helpful. Shortly after the essay was published, Paul wrote me an e-mail which said something like: “Oh, and there’s this awkward phrase on page seventeen we still need to look at.” It was the only e-mail from Paul to which I never replied.

I have been snubbed several times since the essay appeared by people who wanted me to know it. At one dinner party, a colleague and his partner picked up their plates and left the room when I suggested that Charles Johnson (a good novelist and short story writer I have never met) had every right to say that he didn’t like Beloved (I don’t know if he did say that, by the way, but that’s what somebody had reported.) And still, every so often, I will meet an academic who will say to me, “Beloved is a very, very important book to me.” They say it completely out of the blue. Then they drop the subject.

The essay was never reprinted or made available on the internet. So I was glad that Eric and Eliza agreed to make it available at Two Dollar Radio, where we are all encouraged to freely love and hate books as we see fit. Even our own.

After the essay appeared in print in 2004, I received a few clandestine nudges and winks from people who told me they liked the essay, but that was all. Then, a few months ago, somebody sent me Wikipedia’s entry on The Denver Quarterly, which described one of DQ’s high points as the “published to acclaim” Morrison essay. (And I didn’t write the entry, I swear.)

I sent the entry to Paul Maliszsewski, who promised me he hadn’t written it either. Then he suggested that “published to acclaim” was probably a cliche, so we should cut it.

“Please don’t,” I replied.

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